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About the Author
Glenn Cheney is also the author of more than fifteen works of non-fiction and fiction, including: They Never Knew: The Victims of Nuclear Testing (1996); Nuclear Proliferation: Problems and Possibilities (1998), and Journey on the Estrada Real: Encounters in the Mountains of Brazil (2003). He lives in Connecticut with his wife.
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Journey to Chernobyl
Encounters in a Radioactive Zone
By Glenn Alan Cheney
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1995 Glenn Alan Cheney
All rights reserved.
December 3, 1991
The Aeroflot crew argues at the hatch with mannerisms and emphases possible only in a foreign language. They have a problem with paperwork. The plane sits dockside for an hour. Half a dozen gringos and I, all "UN Experts" bound for St. Petersburg to shoot the breeze on Free Economic Zones, sit elbow-to-elbow in seven seats until we figure out that the rest of Beezneez Class is all but empty. We're it.
The stewardesses are just what you'd expect in a joke about a Russian airline: hulking, crudely made up — babushkas of the future. The plane takes off with a ferocious roar, shuddering with effort as it rises into the night and tilts to the east. The cabin fills with the scream of heavy wind and a persistent whine like high-speed gears. I'm scared.
Three hours later, we land. Ireland already? The fellow next to me, an Indian chap named Rao, says, "It's not as far as you'd think." Maybe so. But it sure doesn't look like Ireland out there. Sidewinders of snow writhe across the ice-patched runway. It's too dark to read the letters on the side of the terminal. Rao gives me a look that either confirms or doubts that it snows in Ireland.
As we clomp down the aluminum stairs into the baggage compartment, the stewardess hands us each a chit for a "Free Beverage." Then we clomp down to the icy runway and the frostbit night. It's a crisp, quick hustle to the terminal building. The snow crunches under our shoes. Everybody but me is in street shoes. I'm glad my hiking boots didn't fit in my suitcases. We all wish we'd worn overcoats. Still walking, we look back to see what an IL-86 looks like. Despite the dramatic runway spotlights and the opaque black of the sky behind, it's your basic jet: huge, squat, stubby, serious, with four basic cast-iron engines on the wings, no frills attached. It was obviously not built with miles per gallon in mind. That's why we're still in North America and walking across a runway in the middle of the night.
It turns out we're in Gander, Newfoundland. The free beverage is a can of Pepsi. Everybody trades in his chits, then heads for the Duty Free shop or hangs around the lobby joking about Russia. The terminal is a cross between a Quonset hut and a woodsy lodge. On one vast wall, clocks show the hours in all the Canadian time zones. Everywhere from Vancouver to Quebec it's half-past the hour. In Gander it's 10:15.
Back on the plane, we knock down some vodka with a midnight breakfast. It beats the mineral water, which tastes of sewage and seawater. There is also a cloudy brown wine which tastes sweet and homemade. Lunch: pale, mushy peas from a can, slices of old, old beets, crunchy noodles, obvious leftovers. For dessert, lacerated apples dented with bruises, served by a woman who looks as if she lives on whatever we don't eat. She isn't a regular stewardess. I think she just comes up out of the baggage compartment to serve us apples from a tray. It's her job.
Rao warns me about the bathroom. I haven't been in there yet because I don't feel like putting my boots on. I figure I can hold it till Ireland.
* * *
The Pribaltiskaya Hotel is a special economic zone in which only hard currency is good. With it you can buy anything from Russian women to Miller Lite. The hookers, strictly nocturnal, are well behaved, even shy. They sit in the bars in tight jeans or short skirts, avoiding eye contact. As employees of the Russian mafia, they're let in on a bribe and allowed to stay on good behavior. Somebody told me they charge — or maybe it was "probably charge" — a hundred dollars for the night. A lot of that is baksheesh that gets distributed to everyone from the doorman, I assume, to the hotel manager. Just as in the land of the free and the home of the brave, it's the middle-pimp who makes the most. Somebody else told me that out there in the real world — if you can call Russia real — you can get a "nice one" for five smackeroos, about one-third what a university professor makes in a month.
The food in the hotel restaurant isn't bad, but it has a rustled-up look to it, like maybe it's all that was available. A lot of it came out of cans. One doesn't serve Spam for breakfast unless one has to, not in a place that charges as much as a prostitute who speaks a little English. I'm sure there's no special name for the soups of gristle and fat, tasty though they may be. One feels a bit guilty for not finishing what's on one's plate or for helping oneself to an extra half-glass of grapefruit juice when a waiter isn't looking. In fact one feels guilty eating when the waiter is looking. Don't they feed these guys? Do they get the leftovers? Or is that what's in the soup?
We UN Experts eat at large circular tables set for eight. When I tell the other Experts I'm going to Kiev to look into Chernobyl, they crack the same did-you-bring-your-lead-lined-jock jokes I had heard several hundred times before I left home. When they finish with that, they ask more soberly what I've done to protect myself and if I fully understand what I'm getting into. I confess I've done nothing and know little. I was living in Brazil when Chernobyl blew up on April 26, 1986. The newspapers there reported the fact briefly, then got back to the comings and goings of the Pope, Princess Diana, Gorbachev, Boy George and whoever else was glittering at the time.
So I don't know what to expect. It wouldn't surprise me to find hospitals full of mutated babies, overflowing cancer wards, forests that glow in the dark, death all around. A Ukrainian I happened to meet in New York heard from his mother in Kiev that all the streets are littered with the flowers that are traditionally tossed at funeral processions. The funerals are constant, she said.
I have two contradictory suspicions. From anyone who claims to know something about the results of Chernobyl, I've heard that the situation is horrifically worse than anyone knows. From the press, I've heard nothing in years. Is it possible that massive slaughter has gone unnoticed or fallen by history's wayside?
By chance I meet a Russian in the hotel who was director of security at Chernobyl. To prove it he shows me his photo identification — with some difficulty, because he's holding a short leash with a Great Dane on the other end, a very cool dog, calm and thoughtful. His master tells me the dog saved seventy-four people after the earthquake in Georgia. I pat the dog's head and say, "Good dog!" Then the director says it is possible for me to take a tour of the Chernobyl plant. Despite the many warnings I've heard, this sounds like a great idea. But then he says I'll have to pay a little money.
It strikes me as rather uncivil to come right out and ask for a bribe from a journalist who's just trying to report on what is arguably the world's biggest problem. I pat his dog again and walk away without a word or a handshake.
Kiev may be dying, but here at the Pribaltiskaya, everything's just fine. I'll give them an A for effort. They've got the marble sink, the shower cap, the little collapsible toothbrush, a fresh disk of soap every morning. The chambermaids don't steal. Nice big color TV, though the only thing on is people talking. The room is never cold: in fact, I have to keep the window open all night. But the towels are threadbare and don't match. God knows this doesn't bother me in the least, having stayed at more than one hotel that has no towels — even one hotel that didn't have beds or other furniture, not even a floor, just dirt, a hotel I'd have to flunk for effort but would highly recommend for its unique and experimental approach to ambiance as it replicated life in sub-Saharan Niger, which is where it was. That hotel offered no collapsible toothbrush. Nor did it have toilet paper, perhaps because it didn't have a toilet. The Pribaltiskaya has all the toilet paper you can use, but that isn't necessarily much because it isn't a paper you'd want to scrape across anything sensitive. It's crepe paper with chunks of wood in it, but it's there, which counts for a lot. I carry a folded wad of it in my pocket at all times.
My room on the eleventh floor looks out over the Gulf of Finland, a vast plain of gray ice. Everything out there is gray. The sun does not shine in St. Petersburg, née Leningrad, for the five days I'm here. The morning sky doesn't lighten until nearly nine a.m., and by three o'clock in the afternoon it's dark. Most of the time it's raining. Once I shouldered through the windy drizzle to the Gulf just to stand on the ice so I could say I did it. I did it. I stood on the Gulf of Finland about six feet off the coast of Eurasia. Then I went back to the hotel.
A kid named Alex runs an outpost of capitalism in room 90005. He hangs out near the souvenir shop, passing out his calling card, a scribbled note on a swatch of crepe paper with wood chunks in it. He's got a variety of the usual stuff all over the room: fur hats, matryoshka dolls, lacquer boxes. It so happens I need a leather watchband. He has one with a picture of Yuri Gagarin, first man in space. One dollar. That's within my budget, but a little later I see the price written on the back: a ruble and change, a bit more than a penny.
I ask if he can get me a bottle of vodka, local stuff, not the Smirnoff or lime-flavored Stoly that's for sale in the shop downstairs. He dispatches a cohort on a long shot, but before long he returns with nothing. There is no vodka available anywhere.
I show interest in a mink hat, but forty bucks is too much for me. Alex asks if I've got anything to trade — black shoes perhaps. He's just got himself a dark suit and needs some black shoes to go with it. It just so happens I have a pair of Thorn McCanns I don't need half as bad as I need a mink hat. I come back with them and find the room full of Junior Achievers from Iowa. What a confluence of capitalism! But one of them is admiring my mink hat. Quick to take advantage of implicit competition, Alex complains about scuff marks on my shoes, wants ten dollars cash. I give him a quick lesson in the psychological value of cash- in-hand, hitting him with a fin and walking out with a hat that has a story behind it. So what if I have to attend a UN conference in hiking boots? If St. Petersburg can't live with that, they're never going to make the trek to the paradise of free enterprise. A dude in a suit and hiking boots is just the beginning. They ain't seen nothing yet.
* * *
My room has a television set, though there isn't much on, except all of a sudden one day there's Mikhail Gorbachev himself explaining something. This is no mere sound bite. For over an hour he talks at a table crowded with officials, reporters, photographers and tape recorders. It's the first time I've seen him up close, not in a black-and-white newspaper photo. I never knew that the mark on his forehead was so blood-red. I can't understand what he's saying, but he seems to be giving a long, thoughtful, personal reflection on something. He talks like a man who's had a bit to drink and has waxed loquacious about something that has saddened him. As he pauses to find a precise word, his eyes examine invisible things in the air.
What he's explaining, it turns out, is the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The country I entered three days ago no longer exists. The place I'm going to — Ukraine — is not what it was yesterday. Depending on who you ask, it's part of a Soviet commonwealth, or an independent country or republic or state, or something as yet undetermined. This situation contributes to the ruckus raised when I alter the UN's plans for my return to the United States. The local people in charge of the conference didn't know I was going to Kiev to look into the Chernobyl situation. My visa is for five days only, and getting an extension isn't easy. You need a written invitation from whatever government agency is hosting your stay in the Soviet Union. No one is quite sure what to do if the Soviet Union doesn't exist, let alone if the traveler has to take a train across a state or republic or country that may or may not be called Byelorussia or Belarus or Byelorus and thence into what may or may not be an independent place that may or may not be called Ukraine.
My best bet for a visa seems to be a young Portuguese woman, Ana Isabel da Silva, who is studying journalism at the University of Leningrad (or St. Petersburg, depending on whom you ask) and stringing for a radio station in Lisbon. She says she can take care of it. She's married to a Lebanese engineering student. She and I converse in Portuguese; she talks to her husband in Russian; he talks to me in a halting but comprehensible combination of Portuguese, French and English. These people know the ropes, one of which is a certain (former) Soviet Deputy at the Pribaltiskaya who has told Ana Isabel that he can get me a visa, no sweat. The deal is that I'm supposed to write and place some kind of advertising for him, something to do with the Free Enterprise Zone or some business he's setting up. But we can't find him. I don't know how that leaves things. I'm not even sure what country I'm in. We decide that, since my visa will expire tomorrow anyway, Ana might as well keep it and try to get an extension. She knows someone at the university who can take care of it. She will mail it to me as soon as I have an address in Kiev. I believe this to the extent that it seems a better bet than wandering around with an expired visa from an expired country.
As for traveling in the evil empire (is it still called that, I wonder, or has that name changed, too?), it is not a problem. Ana says that if anyone asks me where I'm from, I should say "Pribaltico," which may or may not be an independent state or group of independent states, but in either case is full of people who cannot or will not speak Russian. "Pribaltico" is the Portuguese word for that place — the Baltics — but since Russians don't know how to say it, Portuguese is good enough. I believe this the way Ana will procure a visa and get it to me in Kiev. I also suspect that "Pribaltiskaya" is the Russian for "Pribaltico." I will play it by ear as necessity dictates. For all I know, "Pribaltiskaya" means "Baltic Avenue," the square on the Monopoly board between Community Chest and the Income Tax.
For some blessed reason, the Intourist office in the hotel gets me a regular (i.e. not tourist) ticket on the train to Kiev, so it costs $1.36 instead of $78.00. The Russian girl in charge of the UN group, a blonde and bilingual beauty, is panic-stricken to hear of my plans. I must not do it. I do not have permission. I cannot arrive in Kiev without visa or government host. I will be robbed and killed within ten feet of the Kiev train station.
I tell her I'm going to do it anyway. She arranges transportation to the train station. Off I go. A nice driver named Slava gets me and my two incredibly heavy suitcases to the right platform, then, after an announcement from the loudspeaker, over to another platform. He looks at my ticket, explains which wagon and compartment I'm assigned to, wiggles the coupon that's stapled to the ticket and explains that the coupon plus five rubles — about a nickel — will get me "everything to prepare for sleep."
One good sign: four cook-types come down the platform with a cart stacked with slabs of meat and gunny sacks of potatoes. They push the cart slowly, as if to give everyone time for a good look. Heads turn as the cart goes by.
The long, khaki train arrives pretty much on time, whistling, steaming, huffing and squealing as a good train ought to. Slava carries my stuff to the right compartment, heaves it up into a storage area above the door. I slip him a dollar and he seems happy with it.
My mates for the twenty-three-hour trip are two young Russian men in threadbare suits and ties. The compartment is warm and clean and more comfortable than New York's Metro North commuter line and homier by far than Amtrak. The bunks are leather, the walls simulated wood. The window would slide up and down if it weren't cracked and patched over with plastic. The curtain across the window is a hemmed rectangle of linen that has been recently ironed flat except for the ridgelines of wrinkles along the borders. A cracked window behind an ironed linen curtain. I have twenty-three hours to think about this.
Excerpted from Journey to Chernobyl by Glenn Alan Cheney. Copyright © 1995 Glenn Alan Cheney. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
6. Something Odd Going On,
7. Chernobyl AIDS,
8. Merry Christmas,
9. Minister and Morgue,
12. Happy New Year,
13. Not to Worry,
14. The Author as Swine,
15. Prohibited Zone,
16. No Exit,